1. Governance
July 3, 2019

Why is it so hard to define Britain’s city boundaries?

By Jonathan Guest

Do you remember looking at a globe when you were young? I do: I remember looking at one at my grandparents’ house in the 90s. I looked at the countries on it, but didn’t recognise some of them. And some of them were bigger than I had imagined.

How could this be the case? I studied my maps at school, and came to learn that map makers like boundaries, certainty, and simplicity.

But I know now that the world is not so straightforward. Boundaries are a feature of all countries, regions and local areas. The establishment of governance structures such as Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and Regional Development Agencies, to drive economic growth, face multiple complexities with boundaries – and multiple ideas as to where those boundaries should lie.

There are inherent challenges with boundaries, specifically around data analysis and policy implementation. Local authorities, combined authorities and LEPs are not always helpful in either the analysis of a problem or the implementation of a solution.

Data analysis is complicated by further geographical units such as Travel To Work Areas (TTWAs), Nomenclature of territorial units for statistics (NUTs), output areas, wards, major towns and cities, postcode areas and other administrative areas such as primary care trusts – all of which cover different geographies and highlight the challenge of using bounded geographies.

Sheffield City Region LEP, for example, is made up of Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley, Doncaster, Bassetlaw, Chesterfield, North East Derbyshire, Derbyshire Dales and Bolsover. It is likely that this composition will shift following the LEP review.

But these boundaries already highlight a challenge for policy makers. Consider Derbyshire Dales, a local authority with natural areas and urban areas (and delicious puddings) which are the envy of the world. Policy makers in and working with Derbyshire Dales face a difficult position. The local authority contains populated areas including:

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  • Hathersage in the north, which pivots towards Sheffield;
  • Bakewell, which is almost equidistant between Chesterfield and Buxton;
  • Matlock, which connectivity- wise faces Mansfield, Derby and Nottingham;
  • Ashbourne in the south, which is not far from Stoke-on-Trent and Derby.

This also shows that administrative boundaries can bind us too easily.  Confusingly, several “overlapping areas” for Local Enterprise Partnerships (e.g. East Riding, Cherwell, Derbyshire Dales) across the country are some of the fastest growing local economies. That shows that there is potentially no harm in being in two areas – or, even better, benefitting from it. Most local authority boundaries raise questions for economic development, planning and public investment professionals. It is also difficult to demarcate city boundaries and this can lead to frustration.

At a practical level, effective collaborations and partnership working can be uneasy where politics is involved. However, there is a strong rationale for more collaboration. We also need to appreciate the limits of imposed or imagined boundaries.

Business people often make the point that their business activities do not stop at administrative boundaries and often this fact is ignored. Initiatives or interventions are seen as a “closed system” when in fact they are anything but. Let’s widen our discussions and collaborate more.

Jonathan Guest is senior economic policy manager for the Sheffield City Region.


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